Saturday, February 26, 2011

Creamy Buttermilk Caesar Salad Dressing

In terms of the most underrated and under-appreciated ingredients in the kitchen, buttermilk is pretty hard to beat. But its benefits reach far beyond baking. While buttermilk does play a pivotal role in everything from muffins to waffles to cornbread, I don't think that recipes for those foods really show off the buttermilk's tangy flavor or unbelievable creaminess.  That's why my favorite way to use buttermilk is in its raw form.

To be honest, I love the flavor of plain buttermilk. Coming from a non-milk drinker, that's saying a lot. It tastes like liquid sour cream and it's so rich that just a little bit goes a long way. But I understand that drinking buttermilk straight is kind of gross and disconcerting for most.

Recently, I've started using buttermilk is salad dressing. One of my favorite summertime salads is Deb from Smitten Kitchen's corn bread salad. It has a buttermilk lime dressing that's loaded with herbs and sweet and tangy flavor. It's a fun spin on my all-time favorite bread salad. Nevertheless, the dressing is a bit thin and the fresh lime and herbs that it contains don't make it year-round fare.

Enter Cook's Illustrated. I've described my love for Cook's Illustrated and my nearly limitless faith in their recipes. A few months ago, we acquired their Healthy Family Cookbook, which has been an incredible addition to our growing cookbook collection. It's sort of like the classic Best Recipe cookbook for lightweights. And by lightweight I mean that the cookbook is loaded with pictures but withholds the exhaustive recipe testing notes (which are actually my favorite part, but then again I also think Lagrange multipliers are fun) . This is the kind of cookbook that showcases easy, everyday recipes that just happen to be healthy.

I was intrigued by their section on salads. Despite the reputation that salad has for being a healthy food lover's dream, the truth is that some salads, with their oil- or fat-heavy dressings and myriad of toppings, aren't as wholesome as they're cracked up to be. It's actually pretty shocking to discover the nutritional information behind just a few tablespoons of salad dressing. However, the folks at America's Test Kitchen devised an ingenious way to retain the familiar flavor of Caesar salad dressing and the thick and creamy texture without the extra calories and fat. The secret ingredient? Low-fat buttermilk.

Here, buttermilk lends its tangy flavor and thickness to the salad dressing. Other pantry staples complete the dressing, making it a perfect dressing to make year-round. A bit of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard add body; the dressing's salty, savory notes come from a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some minced anchovies. Only two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil (a fraction of the amount called for in our previous go-to recipe from Ina Garten) are needed to round out the dressing. What results is something that is surprisingly and unexpectedly delicious, endlessly creamy with a pleasing sourness from lemon juice and buttermilk. It's actually hard to believe that it's a healthy recipe.

No longer will you worry about what to do with the extra half-carton of buttermilk that you have languishing in the refrigerator unused. Make this salad dressing! In fact, I think we may have to start buying buttermilk regularly. I've already started to think about different variations for this recipe: green goddess and ranch dressings come to mind, but even simple additions like herbs or a different vinegar could really transform the dressing.

I realize that I just spent seven paragraphs talking about salad dressing of all things, but I simply cannot withhold my love for this new recipe. I suppose there are worse things I could be obsessed with. Cheesecake, for example. Oh, wait....

Creamy Buttermilk Caesar Salad Dressing 
Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen's Healthy Family Cookbook

This dressing is the perfect complement to more substantial salad greens like romaine or red-leaf lettuce and baby spinach. To make a more substantial salad, add Ina Garten's Caesar additions: oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, crispy pancetta, and perhaps some garlic croutons.

Yield: about 3/4 cup dressing

1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons light mayonnaisse
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) grated parmesan cheese, optional

In a measuring cup or jar, add all ingredients except olive oil and cheese. Whisk vigorously to incorporate (if using a measuring cup) or shake the jar to incorporate the ingredients. If using a whisk, slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking to emuslify the dressing. If using a jar, add the olive oil and shake well to emulsify. Add the parmesan, if using, and serve atop salad greens.

The dressing will keep, stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container, for up to a week.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Butternut Squash, White Bean, and Kale Soup

I've said it here before but I rarely get the opportunity to cook. Living in a dorm really limits my resources, and my hectic schedule also makes it difficult to cook more than oatmeal or a baked potato. Thankfully I'll be living in an apartment-style suite next year that comes fully equipped with everything a cooking student could want: a refrigerator, a microwave, a stove, an oven, and - here's the real kicker - a dishwasher. Is it crazy to think that a dishwasher is the most underrated and under-appreciated kitchen tool out there?

Because I'm me, I've already started thinking about recipes that would be suitable for college life. My mind immediately goes to soups and stews, which are endlessly adaptable, easy to make ahead, and can last a while. There's also the added benefit that they can feed a lot of people for not that much money.

Last weekend I spent a few days at home and made this butternut squash and white bean soup for my mom and me.  I changed a handful of things from the original recipe, but in the end, I am extremely pleased with how it turned out. The end result was a hearty soup with a mixture of textures and flavors. The white beans were creamy, the butternut squash was perfectly tender, and the kale, a last minute addition, gave the soup a much-needed green component and definitely boosted the soup overall. For being so simple, the soup is surprisingly complex. There's a lot going on, but I think that only makes it more fun to eat.
The most unique thing about this soup - what really makes it worthy of sharing - is the balance between savory, sweet, and acidic flavors. The white beans and chicken broth are earthy and balanced by the sweet squash and acidic additions of tomatoes and dry white wine.  Altogether, they combine to form a vibrantly colored and delicious soup that is ideal for any kitchen table.

Butternut Squash, White Bean, and Kale Soup
Inspired by Sweet Paul Magazine via Dancing by the Light 

I changed quite a few things about the original recipe to adapt our tastes and what we had on hand. The original recipe instructed you to cook the butternut squash in a pan with the onions and garlic until the squash was tender. Since we don't have a pan ginormous enough to fit that much onion and squash, I improvised and roasted the squash in the oven for 20 minutes, until the white beans and broth had finished simmering together. After additional time in the broth, the squash had softened just enough.
I prefer soups to be pretty loose and not so thick, so I added a few cups of water after the soup had simmered and then seasoned the broth to taste. If you like thicker soups, you can certainly omit this step. As it sits, the soup thickens considerably, so you can add chicken broth to loosen it up some then, as well.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

1 pound dry white beans (such as Great Northern, Navy, or Cannellini)
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth 
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves minced garlic
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces 
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
4 Roma tomatoes, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bunch kale, stemmed and torn into bite-size pieces

Rinse the beans in a colander, picking them over to remove any small rocks. Place the beans in a large pot and add 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let sit for 1 hour. After 1 hour, drain the beans. Return the beans to the pot and add 6 cups of chicken broth. Heat the beans and broth over medium heat and simmer for 45 minutes, until the beans are just soft.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and become translucent. Add the garlic, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of pepper and continue to cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, about 1 minute more.

After the beans and broth have been simmering together for 20 minutes, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil. Roast the butternut squash for 20 minutes, until it just starts to become tender.

After the beans and broth have simmered for 45 minutes, add the onions and garlic and the squash to the pot. Add the wine, sugar, tomatoes, and thyme. Stir to combine. Continue to cook for 45 minutes more. After 45 minutes, the soup will have reduced and thickened some. If you like, you can thin it out with 2 cups of water and adjust the seasonings to taste from there.

Add the kale to the soup and cook for 10 minutes more, until the kale has softened some but remains al dente. Taste the broth and season to taste. Serve hot with crusty bread to soak up the delicious broth.

The soup will keep, stored in an airtight container, for up to a week. As it sits, it will thicken considerably. When reheating, add additional broth to loosen it up.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Simplest Applesauce

If I could use one word to describe my cooking style, it would be simple. My favorite recipes and foods are usually the simplest, with few embellishments and incredibly easy preparations. Case in point: roasted root vegetables and plain cheesecake (it seems I can't get through a post without mentioning cheesecake). I'd so much rather eat a roasted sweet potato with little more than salt and pepper than a concoction that adds a myriad of different flavorings and ingredients so you can hardly taste the sweet potato-ness in the finished product. 

Take apples. I love apples. All kinds. I don't think I've ever met an apple that I didn't like. From Pink Lady to Golden Delicious to Honeycrisp (swoon) to the ubiquitous Granny Smith, I love them all. There is something so satisfying to biting into a crisp apple, juicy and sweet, with a hint of tartness coming through toward the end.
Plain apples, eaten out of hand, are one of my favorite foods. In my mind, they are perfect as is. Sometimes, though, when the mood strikes, I love to make a batch of applesauce. Usually I get the craving for applesauce around the holidays, or when the temperatures drop and a spoonful of warm applesauce seems the perfect antidote to the chilly weather. Keeping true to my simple is best philosophy, I make my applesauce with nothing but apples and water. It's almost embarrassingly easy, but the end product is proof that this strategy works. Fresh apples don't need anything else to taste wonderful. They already have the whole sweet/tart balance going for them, and when cooked down, I think the flavor concentrates into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Make this in the dead of winter, when you've had your share of citrus, to serve alongside any number of dishes. It would be great as a sweet side to poultry or pork, atop pancakes (sweet or savory) or waffles, or as an accompaniment to spice breads or cakes. As for me? I enjoy it alone, with only a spoon and perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon for some warm spiciness. Yup, typical.
My Favorite Applesauce

Like nearly all foods, I enjoy my applesauce with some real texture so I leave it pretty chunky. If you like your applesauce smoother, or are using it in another application where smoothness is desired, you can use a foodmill to get it more evenly pureed. One of my favorite things about this "recipe" is that it's incredibly adaptable depending on how much applesauce you want to make. I usually make this around the holidays (it's a mainstay on our Thanksgiving table) so I make a large batch. You can adjust the proportions accordingly depending on how much you want to make. I find that sweet/tart apples work best for applesauce because they result in an end product that's sweet without being cloying. Golden Delicious (my favorite apple to eat out of hand), Pink Lady, Jonagold, Gala, and Honeycrisp are all excellent varieties perfectly suited for applesauce. Another great thing about applesauce? It's perfect for using apples that have seen better days or are just languishing, uneaten, in your crisper. This technique also works great with pears, although "pearsauce" just doesn't have that same ring to it, does it?

Yield: 10-12 servings

8 large to medium sweet/tart apples (see note)

Peel and core the apples. Slice them into medium chunks (about 1 1/2-inch pieces) and place in a large pot. Pour in enough water to come halfway up the apples. Heat the apples and water over medium heat for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are very tender. With a potato masher (you could also use a wooden spoon and a bit more elbow grease), mash the apples until they form a chunky sauce. For a smoother applesauce, transfer the whole mixture to a food mill and process the apples until they reach the desired consistency. Transfer back to the pot.

At this point, the applesauce will be a little loose. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the applesauce for 20 to 30 minutes, until some of the water has evaporated and the applesauce is thick. Store the applesauce in the pot or in an airtight container for up to a week. Serve warm or cold.

P.S. I know I said that this year I wanted to post once a week. I also know it's been two weeks since my last post. Unfortunately, this past week was filled with three tests, a project, and lots of homework assignments. Since one of my other New Year's resolutions was to maintain my grades, I see this as a trade-off. I'm hoping to resume my minimum of one post a week from here on out, though. Thanks for reading, as always.